Time to deliver. National hockey coach K. Dharmaraj with his players during their first training session in January, will take charge of his first major tournament of the year in the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Ipoh starting on Thursday. - Filepic
IPOH: K. Dharmaraj may have proven his capabilities as the national juniors coach by guiding Malaysia to a creditable fourth place in the Junior World Cup in New Delhi last December, but can he deliver with the senior squad?
The focus will be on the Malaccan in his first assignment as the national chief coach in the six-nation Sultan Azlan Shah Cup, which begins in Ipoh on Thursday.
Former international Dharmaraj replaced Paul Revington in January, after the South African quit due to personal reasons.
The Malaysian Hockey Confederation (MHC) have set a top-three target for the national team in the 23rd edition of the tournament.
Ranked 13th in the world, Malaysia will open their campaign against 12th-ranked South Africa on Thursday at the Sultan Azlan Shah Stadium.
The other teams in the fray are defending champions and world No. 1 Australia, South Korea (No. 7), Canada (No. 15) and China (No. 25).
The 45-year-old Dharmaraj said that he is looking forward to guiding the team to a good start in the tournament.
“It is my first assignment as the national chief coach and I am optimistic that we can finish among the top three.
“It will be a bonus if we can reach the final,” said Dharmaraj.
Malaysia last played South Africa in the second round of the World League in Johor Baru last September, where the local boys won 4-2.
Dharmaraj added that since taking over the national team, he has lost a number of senior players to injuries.
“Some of the players had to opt out because of studies and personal matters. So, I had to include six newcomers from the Junior World Cup.
“I have faith in them and believe that they will be able to deliver,” said Dharmaraj.
The new faces in the team are goalkeepers Mohd Hafizuddin Othman and Mohd Hazrul Faiz Ahmad Sobri, defender Shazril Irwan Nazli, midfielder Azri Hassan, and forwards Mohd Shahril Saabah and Mohd Rashid Baharom.
Dharmaraj said that the six newcomers would definitely put pressure on the seniors to fight for a place in next month’s Champions Challenge I tournament in Kuantan.
“I want dedicated and committed players who can give their best. It will also be good to see how well the six newcomers cope with the pressure and challenges of the tournament,” said Dharmaraj, adding that starting on the right foot in the first match would motivate the players for the rest of the tournament.
Seasoned campaigner and skipper Azlan Misron will marshall the defence while the experienced Mohd Sukri Abdul Mutalib will lead the midfield.
Spearheading the strike force is the diminutive Faizal Saari, who featured in the Hockey India League for Mumbai Magicians in January. He will also be relied on to deliver the goals from penalty corners.